JoeyPinkney.com Exclusive Interview
5 Minutes, 5 Questions With…
Tristan Gans, author of “Stranieri: Life Among Italy’s Tourists, Expats, and Immigrants”
(Belfort and Bastion)
In 2008, Tristan Gans and his fiancée Sarah went to Italy to recuperate from college. They found themselves in an industrial city where the locals were hostile—but not the other foreigners, “Stranieri,” living and working in Italy despite the objections of the “real” Italians.
But, as Gans soon realizes, it is the Strangers who hold the whip hand. It is they who provide the services, labor, and energy that the Italians cannot seem to produce for themselves. In this thought-provoking book, he asks what will Italy be, and how will “native” Italians react, when Italy is as much African, Pakistani, and Slav as it is Latin.
But Gans doesn’t stop there. In this multifaceted, multilayered work, Gans uses Italy as a metaphor for the West as a whole—a West that may be, he suggests, sliding into postindustrial irrelevance.
And for Gans that possibility has a unique piquancy. He is, he explains, a Millennial, and like most upper-middle class members of his generation he has from his earliest youth been taught to seek success, even greatness at all costs. But “greatness,” as Baby Boomer parents defined it, may not be possible in an age of decline.
Joey Pinkney: Where did you get the inspiration to write “Stranieri: Life Among Italy’s Tourists, Expats, and Immigrants“?
Tristan Gans: I tried to do a lot of traveling when I was living in Europe–backpacking, taking local trains and low-cost flights to see friends and go to places you don’t see much as a tourist on the “Grand Tour.” I’d traveled with my parents before and seen Rome, London, Paris, etc. So now I was going to small Italian towns, 2nd-tier cities in the Czech Republic, and so on, and I was writing a journal about it.
I collated all my journal writings to give to my wife (then fiancée) as a memento, but while I was doing so I realized I was leaving out the most interesting parts of my adventures–I’d recorded what I’d done, but not what it meant to me or to us, or what was particularly interesting about it. So then I started writing supplemental essays that made the journal compilation more meaningful as a record of our time.
The essays became longer and more interconnected and less about travel, and the journal entries started to seem boring by comparison. At some point, I realized I had something much bigger and better than a journal compilation. I started taking the book pretty seriously. Sarah ended up helping write parts of it and edit, and we decided to look into agents and publishers when we got back to America.
JP: What sets “Stranieri: Life Among Italy’s Tourists, Expats, and Immigrants” apart from other books in the same genre?
TG: There are three ways to answer that. One is that this book is a lot more thoughtful than “Eat, Pray, Love” or “Under the Tuscan Sun,” or other books about foreigners who spend time in Italy. “Stranieri” is not about finding love and eating pasta and rediscovering your soul.
I don’t mean to knock those books, I understand why people like them. But fundamentally they’re about people of a certain generation who have a tremendous amount of money (e.g. Elizabeth Gilbert’s publisher gave her a quarter million dollars to finance the Italy trip) and use Italy as a sort of self-help vacation.
Another type of Italy book would be something like the book and movie “Gomorrah,” which are about the corruption and violence lurking not-so-far beneath Italian society. We observed a fair amount of mafia influence in Italy, and Brescia (where we lived) manufactures weapons, so clearly that element exists there. But that type of book takes a lot more research, more connections, and more expense and danger than I could handle. And it’s been done. So that’s not this book, either.
I think the best genre this book fits into is the semi-travelogue memoir. My favorite book to compare to is “Paris to the Moon” by Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker. “Stranieri” and its ilk are books that examine the experience of living in a different place, observing interesting people, and being a different person while you’re there.
I don’t think you can write about a foreign place without acknowledging that while you’re there, you’re a foreigner, and that in itself is pretty meaningful. So as much as “Stranieri” and other books in this category examine the location in question, they have to examine the author’s life as well. As far as what sets my book apart within that genre–I don’t think anyone has written about Italy this way, or this well. If I may be so bold.
JP: As an author, what are the keys to your success that led to “Stranieri: Life Among Italy’s Tourists, Expats, and Immigrants” getting out to the public?
TG: Networking, knowing people. I eventually found my agent because I needed work, and I became a development editor at a great little agency in Cambridge, MA. My boss, Carolyn Jenks, became my agent as well. The book was a tough sell, though, because as you can tell from the previous questions, it’s slow-moving and thoughtful, and it couldn’t honestly be marketed as an “Eat, Pray, Love” knock-off, which is what publishers were looking for.
Also, I’m not already famous, and publishers are also looking for that…anyway, eventually through the agency I got to know Michael Tucker, an author/ editor/history professor/jack of all trades sort of guy, and we struck up a friendship. Michael had been doing a lot of research about the publishing industry and was experimenting with ebooks and various marketing and publishing techniques.
Michael ultimately realized he could make a profit with an ebook-heavy business model, keeping costs low in a lot of ways. He started his own publishing company called Belfort and Bastion, and brought me on. It’s a very small operation, but sales are good so far, and I have near-total creative control and a bunch of other benefits. And we did a paperback version of the book, too. Assuming nobody elsewhere would buy me an ad in the New York Times, I’m getting the same deal I’d get at a larger publisher. Possibly better.
Part of me wishes I could’ve walked into Random House and sold my book in a day, but the truth is it took three years, and I got insanely lucky and just got to know some great people. But that’s how it is for a lot of people, at least if you’re not already famous, or writing about vampires.
As far as post-publication outreach goes, my publisher does most of the work. I run a blog on tumblr called “Tristan Gans’s Totally Real Advice for Humans,” which answers questions on absolutely any topic. I try to keep it wacky. Response has been good so far, though who knows if it has increased sales.
JP: As an author, what is your writing process? How long did it take you to start and finish “Stranieri: Life Among Italy’s Tourists, Expats, and Immigrants”?
TG: Well, I think Question 1 describes the process of developing the book. It took about six months to write and then there was a continuous editorial process that stopped basically three years later, on the date of publication.
Generally for non-fiction I’ll write a chapter in a day. I can write about 10,000 words per day before burning out. BUT–and it is a big BUT–I will think about that chapter for a couple of weeks before I put it down. So I’ll know how it’s structured, how long it should be, and what it will say. It’s basically dictation by the time I write anything down. (I was a composer/musician for a long time; you develop that sort of skill.)
Then after all the chapters are written you’re about 40% done. With the help of some great proofers and editors, the book was pared down from 80,000 to 55,000 words. Sometimes it hurts to cut material, and you cringe to think how thin the physical book will be, but then when you read it you’re glad that only your A+ material made the cut. No filler, everything polished. I am a professional editor (actually retiring now to focus on my legal career), so I appreciate that the editing process is so intense. That’s how it
JP: What’s next for Tristan Gans?
TG: I have a couple of other projects I’m working on. I just sent my agent a collection of children’s poetry that’s mostly about death. I know that sounds crazy, but actually it’s no darker than Shel Silverstein or Edward Gorey, some of my childhood favorites. Carolyn, my agent, keeps bugging me to be more serious about becoming a playwright–I wrote a sort of update on Uncle Vanya–but writing a play is clearly about 5% of the work of getting a play produced, and I just don’t think I can do the other 95%. Anyway, I have some other stuff in mind, but you’ll have to wait and see.
That said, writing is wonderful and I love it, but it’s definitely just a hobby for me, at least until “Stranieri” hits the million copies sold mark. And even then…I’m pursuing a career in bankruptcy law and that also makes me happy. And I have a great marriage, and other hobbies. So a lot of stuff is next for me, and I’m thrilled about all of it.
Thanks for reading!